PULLMAN – During last Saturday’s game against Oregon, Washington State subbed in freshman safety Sulaiman Hameed, burning his redshirt during the fourth game of the season.
His coach’s only regret?
“I think we should have played him sooner,” Mike Leach said.
The WSU coaches started the season with a young secondary and have made it even younger, making personnel decisions over the past month showing that athleticism has become the priority over experience.
The members of the defensive backs that started alongside sophomore cornerback Daquawn Brown in the season opener against Rutgers were senior cornerback Tracy Clark, junior safety Taylor Taliulu and Teondray Caldwell, a junior who had previously played running back but had plenty of game experience.
With the possible exception of Taliulu, none of the aforementioned upperclassmen are likely to start against Utah on Saturday. Instead, fans will see Hameed and a pair of redshirt freshmen in cornerback Charleston White and safety Darius Lemora.
“Some of our younger guys … are better athletes to start out with then some of the others,” Leach said. “They’re better athletes starting from high school than the experienced guys and if that’s the case, of course we’ll play them.”
Two plays against UO stood out as examples of that superior athleticism.
Hameed punished Ducks receiver Keanon Lowe on a short pass to the flat, covering more than 10 yards from the time UO quarterback Marcus Mariota released his pass and drilling the receiver as soon as Lowe set himself to start running.
The play exhibited the safety’s solid football instincts, since Hameed was able to discern where Mariota was going with the ball even before it was thrown. But it was also a prime example of why WSU’s coaches are willing to forego game repetitions in order to get the best athletes on the field.
Hameed is just over 180 pounds but he tackles with his hips and so is able to transfer the energy built up during his sprint into a powerful blow, reminiscent of another WSU safety who started as a true freshman: 2014 NFL first-round pick Deone Bucannon.
“It’s hips, it’s legs and lower back. Some guys got it and some guys don’t, some guys just know how to use it,” said strength and conditioning coach Jason Loscalzo. “Some guys are really, really strong and just don’t hit. Some guys aren’t very strong and still hit like a truck. When Deone Bucannon was 180 pounds, he was still hitting hard.”
Those same instincts and ability to hit are why Lemora has been a regular contributor this season and is likely to start Saturday. Coaches say that he is one of the most enthusiastic players on the team and that he always plays mad and at full speed.
“He works angry, which is good.” Loscalzo said.
“I really have a chip on my shoulder because people think that just because I’m a small safety I may not have the weight,” Lemora said. “But I do have the heart and mindset to play the sport of football and the game, and honestly I do play like somebody is going to take my spot every day.”
Another play illustrating the increased athleticism of WSU’s secondary came when Ducks receiver Dwayne Stanford was unable to create any distance from White on a pass from Mariota that traveled nearly 40 yards in the air.
Oregon’s speed at receiver is usually a difference-maker and those deep shots have a way of burying even the best opponents, but White’s ability to match strides with Stanford over nearly half the field helped end UO’s drive.
White still needs to cultivate his speed over short distances and his ability to change directions quickly, but that’s easier to develop than the natural speed he’s already exhibiting.
“He’s got some great top-end speed, … but what we need to improve with him is that burst,” Loscalzo said. “If he’s going to close on a route, boom, it’s got to be closed now. It can’t be a build-up to a close.”
Of course, there is something to be said for learning from one’s mistakes, and WSU’s freshmen defensive backs haven’t had enough time to make them.
But the coaches are willing to bet that getting the fastest, most explosive players on the field will help them all make up for those occasional miscues.
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